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Half Lives: Why the Part-time Economy Is Bad for Everyone

In America today, a whole job is increasingly hard to find.
 
 
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Editor's note: This is part of Lynn Parramore's ongoing AlterNet series on job insecurity and part of the New Economic Dialogue Project.

Why is a whole job getting harder to find every day in America?

Ever since the financial crash, a growing number of people have been forced to take part-time gigs when what they really want is something increasingly out of reach: solid, full-time employment. Between late 2007 and May 2013, the number of part-timers jumped from 24.7 million to 27.5 million. A 2013 Gallup poll shows that one in every five workers is now part-time. Some folks, like students, may work part-time because they want to. Nothing wrong with that. But involuntary part-time employment is not a choice, it’s a burden. Often it means substandard jobs with crazy schedules that don’t pay nearly enough. According to the Labor Department, as many as a third of all part-timers fall into the involuntary category.

There are signs that their ranks are likely to swell.  

Part-Time Nation

Employers have found a new excuse to drop full-time employees to part-time status: the Affordable Care Act. Diane Stafford of the Kansas City Star looks at a trend called the “Obamadodge,” in which bosses around the country, including Regal Entertainment Group, franchise owners of Five Guys, Applebee’s and Denny’s, and the owner of Papa John’s pizza chain, have announced plans to side-step new requirements that businesses with over 50 full-time-equivalent employees offer their full-time workers access to a qualified healthcare plan or pay a penalty.

The healthcare law defines a full-time employee as anyone working more than 30 hours a week, so the boss simply cuts workers' hours and hires additional part-time staff to make up the difference. Stafford notes that as many as 2.3 million workers across the country are at high risk of having their hours slashed to below the 30-hour mark.

Another rising trend is employers changing part-time workers’ schedules from week to week. According to a New York Times report, this manuever is becoming commonplace in the American retail and hospitality industries. Bosses use sophisticated software to track the flow of customers and purchasing patterns in stores, which allows managers to assign just enough employees to handle the anticipated demand. Instead of five- or six-hour shifts, workers get two- or three-hour shifts. They are often called in at the last minute, and have no way of predicting which days they’ll be working.

At Jamba Juice, for example, employers at Manhattan’s popular smoothie shop use weather forecasts and temperature checks to make micro-adjustments to weekly schedules. If the weather tomorrow is hot, the boss knows that more customers are likely to come in for a cool drink, so more employees will be called in for certain shifts. The managers of clothing stores use different variables to estimate shopping patterns. As with so many trends that negatively impact workers, Walmart is cited as a pioneer in the heavy reliance on part-time workers and the penalizing of those who have difficulty adjusting schedules.

The Times notes that according to a 2011 survey by the City University of New York, half of retail workers in New York City were part-time, and only 10 percent of part-timers had a set schedule week to week. One out of five said they had to be available for call-in shifts either all or most of the time. Obviously, single mothers and others who can’t shift schedules at the drop of a hat, like students trying to take classes, suffer miserably under the new paradigm. And there's little chance of working more than one part-time job if your schedule is in constant flux.